WINCHESTER — On a farm just outside the city limits, Mike Smith finds joy in growing tomatoes, bell peppers, kale and — he hopes by next year — industrial hemp.
“This is going to help our economy,” Smith said of the recent legalization of hemp at the federal level while standing next to a 10-foot tomato vine at Willow Grove Farm off Merrimans Lane.
In 1970, it became illegal to produce hemp in the United States, despite the rich history of the crop in Virginia and throughout the nation.
But the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp — the term given to cannabis containing less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The crop can be used to make food, clothing, paper and many other things.
“Why not have a product that has over 20,000 different uses?” said the 28-year-old Smith, who is originally from Amelia and has a degree in history from The College of William & Mary.
While still in college and working on an oyster boat, he connected with the owner of a 700-acre farm on Old Charles Town Road, which brought him to the Shenandoah Valley in 2015. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Today, Smith owns Shenandoah Valley Produce LLC, through which he runs the Willow Grove Farm community-supported agriculture group, which provides 50 subscribing families with heirloom and GMO-free vegetables throughout the year.
He works three farms in the area: 250 acres at Willow Grove Farm, which is owned by the White family; 150 acres at JK Community Farm in Loudoun County (off of which Smith helps operate a nonprofit program for schoolchildren); and his 5-acre home in Frederick County.
“I don’t even own a tractor,” Smith said of his professional life, which is based on relationships he has with area landowners.
In late April or early May, Smith said he plans to plant at Willow Grove what may be the first local hemp crop in decades.
Smith said he plans to start small with about 1 acre of “field hemp” and three rows of “CBD hemp” in his greenhouse. He will also plant CBD hemp at his personal farm on Apple Pie Ridge Road.
Field hemp is grown primarily for its fiber, while CBD hemp has a higher concentration of cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating natural compound said by some to be useful in treating pain, insomnia and anxiety.
Smith, who has applied for a permit with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said he is looking to partner with the recently established Northern Virginia Hemp and Agriculture in Marshall, which can provide the seeds and put him in touch with potential customers for his crop.
Smith said the hemp industry is slowly taking off because powerful industries already hold an advantage in growing and transporting the crop.
There is also the persistent erroneous connection some people make between hemp and its cousin marijuana, which contains the intoxicating THC compound, Smith said.
But Smith said he believes change is coming, particularly as the nation continues to develop its environmental conscience.
Hemp grows quickly, absorbing a large amount of carbon from the atmosphere in a short amount of time, and it can be used to make cleaner paper, fuel, biodegradable plastics and textiles. Smith said he thinks these products are going to be pursued by up-and-coming generations of investors and entrepreneurs.
“I think it’s going to be huge. I really do,” he said.
Hemp is just one component of the sustainable culture Smith said that he and other small-scale farmers are trying to establish in the Shenandoah Valley. Much of the large-scale farming in the region is not sustainable, relying on the use of things like poultry manure and toxic pesticides, he said. On some farms the ground actually emits carbon rather than storing it, he said, because the soil has been parched of nutrients and cannot retain root systems.
Smith said he rotates buckwheat and clover and other “cover crops” to rehabilitate the soil.
It’s a challenge to build a sustainable system that can “make money” but also “give to the land,” Smith said. “I’m blessed to be on a farm like this that has a progressive mindset.”